Supporting Indy Artists: A conversation with PUMA & MARTK’D

On April 3, 40 artists from all over Indiana came together in an empty storefront at Circle Center Mall to battle it out for the best design on a white Ralph Sampson PUMA sneaker. The day kicked off with a fireside chat with Brian Richardson, the Director of Equity and Inclusion for the Indianapolis Colts, and Dion Walcott, the Founder of MARTK’D & the VP of Yellowbrick Brand Partnerships. Emceed by Edge Haines, they discussed the importance of supporting artists, and touched on the role that equity and inclusion play in the community at large.

This was followed by the competition itself, a festive – thanks to DJ Dezzy Dez – yet tense hour when artists had a chance to bring their talents to bear on at least one of the sneakers. This followed by the judging period allowing the artists to meet one another and admire the work of fellow competitors. Finally, after an energetic performance by 31SVN and Alkemy dancers, the winner and the runners up were announced.

And while there could only be one winner, the event feedback demonstrated that everyone who participated felt like they won in one way or another. For some, this was the first time they had attended a public event since the beginning of the pandemic and they were just excited to be around other people again, for others this was the first time they had ever painted on sneakers, and they were thrilled to be able to try something new, for yet others, the opportunity to connect with other artists, and to feel a part of a vibrant community was almost as good as taking first place, and of course, let’s not forget those artists who were used to creating in the privacy of their homes or studios, and just the mere act of doing something in public and allowing an audience to view them in process was the day’s victory.

While without the artists there couldn’t be an event, having the support of community partners and sponsors is also key to its success, and especially the long-term impact that an activation like this can have on the creative community. I am very grateful that Puma stepped up to not only provide sneakers for all the artists to paint on, but also a cash prize for the winner.

At the end of the day, events like MARTK’D x PATTERN only happen when there exist companies that genuinely care about the community to which they are selling, and understand that giving back is an important part of the relationship they need to have with consumers. Because the sneaker industry exists and has thrived so massively due to the creatives that have been involved in both creating the footwear, and also in promoting it, Puma understands that supporting artists is a key business strategy as they continue growing their brand.

I was fortunate enough to visit briefly with some of the individuals driving the Puma brand and living out its ethos of joyfulness, as well as the Founder of MARTK’D who has been hugely successful with the platform, providing countless connections and opportunities to those who want to make careers using their artistic talents. Below is a redacted discussion with David Ballin, Puma Director of Merchandising & Consumer Insights, Ariel Weekes, Puma Manager of Merchandising Footwear and Athletic Specialty and Dion Walcott, the man behind MARTK’D and Yellowbrick’s VP of Brand Partnerships.

Art Direction by Polina Osherov, Photography by Solomon Mabry, Wardrobe by Bekah Brunner, Model: Malcomb (Rune Models); Cover design by Lindsay Hadley

Polina Osherov: Thank you for joining me, and for your support of Indiana-based artists! What an incredible event with a ton of great feedback! Correct me if I’m wrong, but working in the sneaker industry requires a passion for sneakers, does it not? How did all of you discover an interest in sneakers, fashion and art?

David Ballin: It goes way back for me. I was born in Kingston, Jamaica and my grandmother made her own dresses out of whatever she had on hand, even curtains. She used to have one of those sewing machines with a manual foot pedal. Also, my dad’s younger sister, who unfortunately passed away from cancer, was a huge fan of fashion. She used to babysit me and I have pictures of her dressing me up in all kinds of things, from cowboy boots to Michael Jackson gloves, and everything in between. So growing up around these women is probably where my love of fashion developed from.

After we moved to the States, and growing up a lot of that interest got concentrated into sneakers. My parents, in the meantime, believed that a person only needed three pairs of shoes. A black shoe, a brown shoe and a sneaker. So I had to save money to buy my own sneakers. I was in seventh grade when I got my first pair of Jordan 11s. That was the first time that I ever saw patent leather on sneakers. Until that point it was always patent leather on my dress shoes. It was never on a sneaker. And that triggered something in me. I thought, whoever came up with this is a genius. I want to know this person, how they did it. I want to get into that. I knew nothing about the sneaker industry, but I always knew that I wanted to be around that type of creativity.

Dion Walcott: David, I didn’t even know that you’re from Kingston. I’m originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and this is the first time I’m actually on a call with another countryman from an Island. Anyways, similar path, but in a different trajectory in that I went to grade school in the islands and it was a Catholic school so everyone wore uniforms, and the only way we could identify girls whose names we didn’t know was by their sneakers. (laughs)

I fell in love with sneakers because of how they allow you to express your personality because that’s all I had. Because everyone wore the same thing. I also played sports the majority of my life so sneakers were always a part of my life. The neighborhood I grew up in, sneakers were a status symbol. It was always about who was wearing the freshest pair of sneakers. So while I went through college, I always had fresh sneakers on. 

David Ballin: It’s funny you bring up the uniforms because I actually went to school in Jamaica until first grade. I was at Meadowbrook Prep School and same thing, we had our uniforms and the only thing you could wear that wasn’t uniform was your sneakers.

Dion Walcott: We didn’t realize that uniforms were the virus that would make us sneaker lovers. (laughs)

Ariel Weekes: My dad’s one of the most frugal people ever. So anytime my parents bought me shoes I would just dog them, and beat them up. Those Jordan 6s would get mad dirty and it didn’t matter to me. But then, when I was about eleven, twelve years old, I suddenly became aware that there were different types of sneakers. The Barry Sanders’ and the Penny Hardaway “Olympics” caught my eye especially and I wanted them both. And my mom was like, “yo, why would I get you both if you’re just going to dirty them up? If you can keep your sneakers clean, I’ll think about getting you a second pair.” And that’s where it started. I’m not a sneakerhead, but I appreciate how sneakers help someone make a statement and express their personality. 

Polina Osherov: What in your background gave you an affinity for education and community-building, and to approach your work with an eye not just for profit, but also positive community impact?

Ariel Weekes: My dad runs a nonprofit, and my mom is an educator. They’ve been doing their duty to enhance their community for many decades. Ironically as a kid I wanted to do anything but what my parents were doing, but then as you get older you end up doing things that your parents have done and you talk to them, and you’re like, hey, that’s the same things you’re doing! As far as the art side of it, I think it was actually my mom’s sister and her husband who is a painter, who really got me into the arts. She’s always had a love and passion for different cultures, history and the arts, so that’s how I got introduced to that world. I’m not an artist myself, but consider myself a young collector. I specifically collect the work of black photographers. 

Dion Walcott: My childhood and where I grew up wasn’t the greatest, so I think making the world a better place was always of interest to me. I went to college to be a social worker, and was a social worker for ten years. My love of sneakers bled into my social work, and conveniently that’s how I would connect with young people, because I was this older guy, but who could speak to youth because we had something in common, which was our sneakers. Eventually I figured out a way to connect my passion for sneakers, education and community by starting to have these Art on Sneaker events. I saw an opportunity to grow the platform and left social work to focus my efforts on doing just that and never looked back.

Polina Osherov: David, how can someone wanting to work in the sneaker industry prepare themselves to be a successful leader in the highly competitive industry?

David Ballin: My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. Obviously I did not do that. When I told my dad that I was going to do the sneaker thing, he was upset at first. He was like, “you want to be Al Bundy??” But after he got over it, he did impart this advice to me. “If you’re going to do this right, learn and understand every piece of this business, make yourself invaluable not only to your company, but the industry that you’re in.” That’s something that I definitely took to heart and have always tried to understand all aspects of the sneaker business. 

So for example, understanding trends; What drives trends? What cities drive trends? What consumers are driving trends? To have the answers to these questions is all about putting in work the and having the passion to go find out this information. Ultimately all this is just about being in the culture, going to the mall, going to store, being observant of what’s going on on social media. What influencers and celebrities are wearing, what things are driving the marketplace. And yes, you can go read the trend reports, but just being a part of the consumer’s life and their culture is more valuable to me and where I learned more things than reading the WGSN report that they send me every week.

It’s not enough to just be able to list your favorite sneakers or how they make you feel. When you walk into an interview, you have to be able to speak about the business. For example, when I walked into my Puma interview, I knew that Puma was not in Karmaloop at the time, that they were not in primary locations at Footlocker. Me knowing that, having that kind of awareness gave me a leg up in that interview. And all I did was walk around and try to find where the Puma product was being sold.

Communication is always key, especially if you have ambitions of being in a leadership position. Being able to voice your opinion, rooted in facts and communicate that in a way that brings people in, rather than alienating people is key in my job and really in any role in this industry. It’s trying to build allies, build relationships that allow people to see your vision and for you to then see their vision too and then find a way to utilize both those viewpoints, to bring to life what ends up being meaningful projects. There’s not one project I’ve ever worked on that we didn’t need multiple people to touch it, feel it, do it, do something to make it come to life and make it meaningful.

It’s all about team work and being a team player no matter your position. You have to understand true leaders live in service of the people that follow them. That’s a Celtics Hall of Famer, Bill Russell’s quote. And another one of his that sticks with me is “My ego demands, for myself, the success of my team.” Those two things are what I live by, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. For me, whatever I do is about including more people, including more voices and trying to get the entire organization on the same page to again, bring whatever project it is that we’re working on to life in the most meaningful way for our end consumer.

Polina Osherov: What are some qualities or behaviors that someone can hone and get better at as they are pursuing professional and/or artistic growth?

Ariel Weekes: Make yourself available and visible. If it’s sneakers you’re into, go hang out at a sneaker store. Talk to the people who work there because they probably know someone or somebody else. Build your network. Also learn the business. You have to be familiar with how those shelves work. Also, follow the movers and shakers on social media and just make sure you’re around when things are going down. Another one is to stay true to yourself and always being sincere in your network. Don’t connect with people just for your own advancement. Last, but not least, put in the work, and be prepared to sacrifice. 

And then, also just while you’re at this entry level, remember when you do ascend to the leadership level, never forget that all these things you’re doing now will never be beneath you. I’m not worried if Dave asks me to go sweep the floor because we were getting ready for a showroom event. I’ll sweep the floor because that’s what’s needed. Never be afraid to be a leader that sets that kind of an example.

Dion Walcott: I think discipline, for sure. Being disciplined is going to take you a lot of different places. That’s one. Two, work on your craft, whether you’re getting the light shone on you or not. Bryan is a perfect example. He works at a factory. There’s nothing wrong with working at a factory, but he still finds the time to work on his craft. That’s why he won. Then finally, be social and meet people. Don’t close yourself off, especially as an artist. Put yourself out there. If you enjoy doing it and you want to share your skill with the world, don’t let what others might say about your work discourage you. If you enjoy doing it, who’s somebody to say you’re not good at it? Go out there and try it. Participate!

David Ballin: For a young person coming up, just being a part of the culture and being passionate about it and being observant, paying attention to what’s going on around you is the first thing. And that will help lead into the other things like understanding other parts of the industry. It’s also important to work on understanding yourself and what YOU’RE passionate about. Is it the creative? Is it sales? Is it marketing? The more you immerse yourself in your area of interest, the better positioned you’ll be to move into a position that feels the most authentic to you and where you can make the most difference.

Polina Osherov: What’s a project or initiative that you’re working on at Puma that you’re really proud of?

David Ballin: One that has stood out to me recently is some of the work we’ve done with Rick Williams, (Founder of Burn Rubber Sneaker Boutique in Detroit.) Rick is a great ambassador for us and has allowed us to have a more meaningful conversation with the neighborhoods that we operate in and with the consumer that is supporting our brand. It allows us to have a part of our brand model that says that we want to positively impact the communities that we operate in. Our programs with Rick help us do that by taking our brand from this 10,000 foot place and getting us more connected to the people that support us, the people that are paying my salary at the end of the day, right? For every shoe they buy, it makes us the brand we are. So giving back to those communities and making sure that we’re having authentic conversations with them, those projects are the ones that are most meaningful to me.

Ariel Weekes: This is my second year at Puma, and right away I saw that while we worked with a lot of black talent outside of the company, the internal team just didn’t have as much diversity, so I proposed creating an employee research group. It’s called Be Bold, which stands for Black and Brown employees for Organizing Leadership and Development. The initiative has to do with recruiting, and retention of black and brown employees, and also studies how the brand is in touch with the community that consumes Puma beyond selling them sneakers. From that standpoint, this event with PATTERN was an important part of that work.

Polina Osherov: Dion, I’ve heard you say in an interview, “no matter where you come from, you can always make something of yourself.” I believe the MARTK’D platform is a great tool for helping people go to that next level. Heck! Take our winner, Bryan Head. (Read our interview with Bryan here) He’s a third shift factory worker in Southern Indiana and now due to winning the competition, he’s not only had a huge boost to his morale, but also now has some major bragging rights. The hope is that he can use the experience to propel him to the next thing, so that ultimately he can be a full-time artist and still be able to support his family. So thank you for creating this incredible opportunity for artists all over the world, and thank you to Puma for providing tangible support to help make it happen. I hope we can partner on another event in 2022!

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